Saturday, 11 January 2014

In-Group Favouritism can be used to Get Even as well as to Get Ahead

Social identity theory is a major mainstream theory of intergroup relations (Tajfel and Turner, 1979). At its heart lies the assumption that social groups fight and compete with one another in order to attain positive distinctiveness from one another. In other words, group members are motivated to favor their own group (the in-group) and derogate other groups (out-groups) along specific intergroup comparison dimensions in order to increase or maintain their group's relative social status. High in-group status and positive in-group distinctiveness enable in-group members to achieve or maintain a positive social identity and concomitant positive self-esteem (Rubin and Hewstone, 1998, 2004). So, for example, sports fans support their team and derogate the other team in the hope that their team will beat the other group so that they can then bask in the reflected glory of their team's success.

Oxford United Fans Celebrating at a 2011 Game
There is a lot of evidence in support of the social identity explanation of in-group favoritism. However, my colleagues (Constantina Badea and Jolanda Jetten) and I have recently questioned whether beating the out-group is the only motive for in-group favoritism. We assumed that, in the specific case of low status groups, in-group favoritism may be used to make the in-group equal to the out-group, and not necessarily better than the out-group. In this case, in-group favoritism is used to achieve intergroup fairness rather than positive in-group distinctiveness. To give a real world example, gay men and women may favor their low status group not because they want to outdo straight men and women but because they seek equality with straight people in having the right to marry their partners. In this case, in-group favoritism is enacted with the aim of achieving intergroup equality rather than high in-group status or positive distinctiveness.

An Equal Love Rally in Melbourne, Australia
To clarify our assumptions, we distinguished between two types of in-group favoritism that might be used by low status groups: competitive favoritism and compensatory favoritism.
  1. Low status groups can use competitive favoritism to compete with high status out-groups in order to achieve positive in-group distinctiveness.
  2. Low status groups can use compensatory favoritism to compensate for their low status and achieve intergroup fairness.
To test these predictions, we asked 139 psychology undergraduates to take part in a social group resource distribution task. Participants were given an identification number ranging from 1 to 50 and then randomly assigned to two arbitrary groups called the “Red Group” and the “Green Group.” They then allocated points to people from their group and the other group. They were told to think of the points as "points in a game," where the more points a person or group gets, the better. Crucially, the members of one group always started this points allocation task with two more points than the members of the other group. So, in the context of our admittedly artificial laboratory situation, we had an intergroup status hierarchy, with a high status group starting off with more points than a low status group.

Participants used a series of point allocation tables like the one below to award points to group members. In each table, they had to circle one of the four columns listed under the heading “My Allocation to Each Person.” Some of the choices in these columns compensated the low status group member for their initial two-point disadvantage. For example, if a member of the Red Group circled the 3/5 choice in the table, then their fellow low status Red Group member would end up with the same number of points (6 starting points + 5 allocated points = 11 points in total) as the high status Green Group member (8 starting points + 3 allocated points = 11 points in total). Other choices in the tables allowed low status group members to get more points than the high status group member. For example, the 2/6 choice meant that the Red group member ended up with more points (6 + 6 = 12) than the Green group member (8 + 2 = 10).

Using this novel approach, we found that participants in the low status group were significantly more likely than participants in the high status group to choose the competitive in-group favoritism option (e.g., the 2/6 choice in the above table). So, we replicated the classic, competitive favoritism effect that is predicted by social identity theory.

However, we also found that participants in the low status group selected the compensatory favoritism option (e.g., the 3/5 choice in the table) significantly more than chance. Here, awarding more points to the in-group than to the out-group had the effect of compensating the in-group for its initial points disadvantage and leading to intergroup fairness.  Hence, the compensatory favoritism choice enabled the low status in-group to do as well as the high status out-group in terms of its points allocations but not necessarily better than the out-group.

Social identity theory has touted social competition as the key driver of social change (Tajfel and Turner, 1979). Our research suggests that, in the context of unequal intergroup status relations, social compensation can also provided a pathway to social change. Specifically, low status groups can use in-group favouritism to change the intergroup hierarchy by getting even with the high status group, rather than by surpassing it in status.

For further information, please see the following journal article:

Rubin, M., Badea, C., and Jetten, J. (2014). Low status groups show in-group favoritism to compensate for their low status and to compete for higher status. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations DOI: 10.1177/1368430213514122

For a self-archived version of this article, please see here.